The American Presidents—Washington to Lincoln

11) James Polk

polk

Presidency: 1845 – 1849 Lived: 1775 – 1849 Ranking: 10/43

Slave Owner? Yes.

His Deal: A Good President Island in the middle of The Bad President Circus, Polk is the least known good president by far. He was a Congressman by age 29, a supporter of Andrew Jackson, and a great orator, known as “Napoleon of the Stump.”

His Presidency: Emerging in 1845 as an unlikely dark horse election-winner, Polk was a rare promise-keeping and efficient president. He began by announcing that he would only seek one term in office, and followed by laying out a clear, ambitious agenda—re-establish an independent Treasury, reduce tariffs, and acquire a bunch of Western land. Then he spent his one term taking no vacations, accomplishing his full agenda, and didn’t run again. Weird, right?

As for acquiring Western land, he started by finishing Tyler’s Texas mission, which turned into tensions that quickly led to the Mexican-American War. The US was bigger and stronger and bullied Mexico into giving up about half of their country for the paltry fee of $15 million. He also used the threat of war to force Britain into a compromise that landed the US with the whole Pacific Northwest. Here’s how big an impact Polk had—he locked down the blue Texas region, and acquired both the pink Southwest region in the war and the yellow Northwest region from Britain:

UnitedStatesExpansion

Things He Can Brag About:

  • Being the only US president to have also served as Speaker of the House
  • Making the US a huge, coast-to-coast nation

Things He Hopes We Don’t Remember:

  • That Mexico has feelings too. Most Americans are thankful to Polk for his westward expansion, but he could just as easily be considered a brutal imperialist invader.

Things He’s Annoyed About:

  • Being considered by everyone as “one of those old random presidents,” even though he was actually really good and should be much more famous.
  • His attempt to acquire Cuba, to which the Spanish said no. (It would be weird if Cuba were a US state today.)

Other Notable Facts:

  • Polk was president during the gold rush in California.
  • He was one of three presidents who had no children.
  • He died of cholera three months after leaving office.

Last Words: “I love you, Sarah. For all eternity, I love you.” How annoyed are all the previous presidents that they didn’t think of that one.

 

12) Zachary Taylor

taylor

Presidency: 1849 – 1850 Lived: 1784 – 1850 Ranking: 35/43

Slave Owner? He owned a bunch of things and one of them was slaves.

His Deal: A rad old war hero, both as a captain in the War of 1812 and as a general in the Mexican-American War. Unfortunately, he wasn’t much of a political leader, with vague and unknown opinions in many major policy areas, including the hottest issue, slavery. He aligned with the Whigs a bit more than the Democrats, so he ran as a Whig, and won.

His Presidency: Was short. He died suddenly after eating some raw fruit, about a year into his presidency. Historians have speculated that he may have been poisoned, but there’s no conclusive evidence either way.

Things He Can Brag About:

  • Having a rad nickname only a war veteran could have—Old Rough and Ready
  • That Abraham Lincoln gave his eulogy

Things He Hopes We Don’t Remember:

  • That he was on his way to being a pretty terrible president, but died quickly enough that no one really knows for sure

Things He’s Annoyed About:

  • Being poisoned, if that’s what happened

Other Notable Facts:

  • He fell in sharp contrast to all the super-intellectual and polished-politician presidents of the time—he never went to school, had no political experience, never voted in his life, and dressed like a farmer.
  • His handwriting was later described as “that of a near illiterate.”

Last Words: “I am about to die. I expect the summons very soon. I have tried to discharge all my duties faithfully. I regret nothing, but I am sorry that I am about to leave my friends.”

 

13) Millard Fillmore

fillmore

Presidency: 1850 – 1853 Lived: 1800 – 1874 Ranking: 38/43

Slave Owner? No.

His Deal: The Vice President that took over for Taylor after his death. Fillmore was chosen as VP in order to satisfy Northerners—he was middle class, from New York, and had never owned slaves. His time in office was the last Whig presidency, and in his later years, he ran for president (and lost) as the head of the new American, or Know-Nothing Party. Fillmore was an impressive lawyer and turned out to be a much-less-impressive leader of the country.

His Presidency: An anti-slavery moderate, Fillmore was yet another president with a weak stance on slavery. He came into power in the heat of the slavery battle and proposed The Compromise of 1850, which momentarily quieted tensions, successfully kicking the can down the road. One interesting achievement of his presidency was commissioning the Perry Expedition to try to open up isolationist Japan, which triggered Japan’s new path toward becoming a powerful, modern nation.

Things He Can Brag About:

  • In his lawyer life, starting a firm which still exists today as the large firm Hodgson Russ

Things He Hopes We Don’t Remember:

  • He was morally against slavery, but that didn’t stop him from allowing slavery to exist in newly-gained Western territories, signing the Fugitive Act (which demanded that slaves that escaped to free states be returned to their owners), and down the road, opposing the Emancipation Proclamation.
  • His unbelievably lame nickname, The Compromise President

Other Notable Facts:

  • The only president named Millard
  • The only human being named Millard

Last Words: “The nourishment is palatable” after being fed some soup. He finished his life by saying, “The nourishment is palatable.” Typical Millard Fillmore.

 

14) Franklin Pierce

pierce

Presidency: 1853 – 1857 Lived: 1804 – 1869 Ranking: 40/43

Slave Owner? No.

His Deal: Franklin Pierce was good at some things, like law and fishing. He was also bad at some things, like being the president. Shame, because the country really could have used a good president right around the mid-1850s, when the nation was on the brink of going to war with itself. He did fine in politics in earlier years as a handsome and charming senator from New Hampshire, taking that seat at the age of 32.

His Presidency: In fairness, Pierce began his presidency in a tough spot. He, his wife, and his son were in a train crash that killed his son right in front of him and his wife (this after they had already lost their first two children). Then, a couple months later, William Rufus King, his vice president, died. Once in office, he followed the lead of the last six presidents by taking a middling position on slavery that left everyone unhappy. Most of his policy decisions were the result of persuasion by his cabinet-members, the worst example of which was his being manipulated into passing the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which opened up the possibility of slavery expanding westward into those new territories—this infuriated the Northerners and brought war even closer. A terrible president, not only did he not win reelection in 1857, he didn’t even win the nomination for reelection by his own party.

Things He Can Brag About:

  • Completing the Gadsden Purchase, which bought the final piece of land to complete the modern continental US (see map in the Polk section—it’s the small reddish section at the bottom of Arizona)
  • Being the first president to present his inaugural address with no notes

Things He Hopes We Don’t Remember:

  • The time he drunk drove his horse carriage into an old woman, running over her with the horse. I feel like that should be considered both Pierce’s and the horse’s fault equally
  • The fact that he was caught supporting the Confederacy. During the Civil War, Confederate President Jefferson Davis’s home was captured and raided by the Union army. One thing they found were letters from Pierce to Davis, revealing Pierce’s Confederate sympathies.

Things He’s Annoyed About:

  • His opponents’ nickname for him, “Fainting Frank,” mocking his wartime efforts in the Mexican-American War, referring to a time when he fainted during battle and had to be carried away

Other Notable Facts:

  • He ran for president against his own commanding officer from the Mexican-American War.
  • The Democrats’ campaign slogan during that election was, “The Democrats will pierce their enemies in 1852 as they poked them in 1844.”
  • During the campaign, opponents mocked Pierce for rumors of his alcoholism, calling him “the hero of many a well-fought bottle”
  • He was highly over it by the time his presidency ended, quoted as saying, “All that’s left, is to drink and die.”

 

15) James Buchanan

buchanan

Presidency: 1857 – 1861 Lived: 1791 – 1868 Ranking: 42/43

Slave Owner? No.

His Deal: You’d think that when the previous three consecutive presidents score 35th, 38th, and 40th out of 43, we could only go up from there. You’d really think that. And yet, James Buchanan is the next in line and the lowest-ranked of all the presidents so far, at 42nd. The funny thing is that Buchanan’s history shows that upon entering office, he had hoped and expected to be a president on par with George Washington, one who would bring harmony to the divided nation. He thought he was gonna be Abraham Lincoln. Unfortunately for James Buchanan, he wasn’t Abraham Lincoln, he was James Buchanan.

His Presidency: A debacle. Buchanan’s four years were insanely tense and rocky, with Civil War furor bubbling over and an economic crisis—the Panic of 1857—not helping the situation. And Buchanan couldn’t have handled things worse. By trying to kick the can even further down the road and maintain a fragile peace, Buchanan alienated both sides of the fight. He was especially annoyed with the Northern abolitionists, since if they would just let it go, this huge nightmare might just go away. But they didn’t let it go, and in 1860, South Carolina and six other slave states seceded from the Union and formed the Confederate States of America. Buchanan replied by saying, “Ugh,” and by staying ambiguous enough in his actions that he impressively managed to continue to infuriate both sides. When that didn’t work, he tried paralysis, and did nothing—and the Civil War broke out. Historians often cite Buchanan’s ambiguity in the face of secession to be the #1 worst decision by a US president.

Things He Can Brag About:

  • Being the only US president from Pennsylvania

Things He Hopes We Don’t Remember:

  • His presidency
  • The fact that even without all the slavery/war stuff, he’d still probably be the worst president—his cabinet was the most corrupt in history, he vetoed a bill to create more colleges, saying that “there are already too many educated people,” he ran the deficit up to $17 million and presided over the Panic of 1857, he recklessly ousted Brigham Young as governor of the Utah Territory after hearing uncorroborated reports of a Mormon rebellion, he vetoed the Morrill Act and Homestead Act, both of which proved to be important acts after Lincoln later signed them into law.

Things He’s Annoyed About:

  • All of this. He spent the rest of his life fiercely defending himself, and the day before his death, he predicted that “history will vindicate my memory.”

Other Notable Facts:

  • A lifelong bachelor, some believe that Buchanan was homosexual. He spent ten years living with Pierce’s VP, William Rufus King (the one who died before Pierce started as president), leading to snide remarks from some, including cranky old Andrew Jackson, who referred to Buchanan and King as “Miss Nancy and Aunt Fancy.”
  • We’ll save him for a future post, but the fact that Buchanan is only considered the second worst president does not say good things about Warren G. Harding.

Last Words: “Whatever the result may be, I shall carry to my grave the consciousness that at least I meant well for my country. Oh Lord God Almighty, as thou wilt.” Well that was sad. Great, I feel bad now.

 

16) Abraham Lincoln

lincoln

Presidency: 1861 – 1865 Lived: 1809 – 1865 Ranking: 1/43

Slave Owner? Clearly not.

His Deal: A refreshing #1 ranking in the heart of The Bad President Circus, this was perfect timing. Lincoln was raised in a one-room cabin, lost his mother and sister when he was young, went to one year of school total, and had to educate himself by borrowing books. He self-taught his way all the way to passing the bar at age 27.

He was an astute politician, winning people over with his eloquence and self-deprecation, especially with regard to his appearance—once when called “two-faced” during a debate, he replied, “If I had two faces, do you think I’d be wearing this one?”

Lincoln ran for Senate in Illinois in 1858 against Stephen Douglas, engaging in the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates on slavery during the campaign. Douglas won the election, but Lincoln had the debates made into a book, which spread throughout the country and won him national support, paving the way to his presidential election two years later.

I was wondering if maybe Lincoln was slightly overrated with that first place ranking, but then I read about him for two hours just now and no, he’s not.

His Presidency: Lincoln took office right as the Civil War was breaking out and had all kinds of shit to deal with. He had to use a slew of complex legal maneuvers to pass the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment (outlawing slavery), and a whole array of clever human manipulation tricks to gain the support he needed for his agenda from politicians and the public. He even played a large role in the war strategy. Five years into his presidency, the Confederacy surrendered, ending the war, and six days later, he was assassinated, since apparently there’s no need for anyone to guard the president’s box while he’s watching a play.

Things He Can Brag About:

  • Being on the penny and the $5 bill
  • Being the first Republican president (though both of today’s parties claim Lincoln as theirs)
  • Being the first bearded president—legend has it that an 11-year-old girl wrote to him during his presidential campaign and told him his weird skinny face should have a beard to be less weird and skinny, and he took the advice
  • Being the tallest president, at 6’4″ (and a frail 180 pounds)
  • Delivering the Gettysburg Address while having smallpox
  • Creating the first US income tax by signing the Revenue Act of 1861
  • Making Thanksgiving a national and annual holiday. Before this, Thanksgiving happened rarely and sporadically, the last one having taken place 50 years earlier, during James Madison’s presidency

Things He Hopes We Don’t Remember:

  • That he and his wife conducted regular séances in the White House to contact their dead sons

Things He’s Annoyed About:

  • The nickname Abe. He never liked it.

Other Notable Facts:

  • Lincoln’s spouse, Mary Todd Lincoln, went insane after enduring Lincoln’s death and then the third death of one of their sons a few years later. Their one remaining son, Robert, had her institutionalized.

Last Words: “Haha.” He reportedly was laughing at a line in the play when he was shot.

Part 2 (Johnson to McKinley) →

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